Did you know that women generally fare worse than men after experiencing a heart attack?
One reason is that it can be difficult to identify the warning symptoms of a cardiac event when they do hit.
According to the British Heart Foundation heart attacks kill more than twice as many women as breast cancer every year. Yet coronary heart disease is still perceived to be a ‘man’s disease’.
There are over 900,000 women in the UK living with coronary heart disease, the main cause of heart attacks. 68,000 women go to hospital following a heart attack each year in the UK – an average of 186 women per day, or 8 per hour. Considering these figures, it’s worrying that some women don’t realise that heart disease could happen to them.
Who’d have thought I’d have a heart attack?
Like many, I just didn’t realise what was happening when I had my heart attack. I had many symptoms from shoulder ache, indigestion and fatigue but I just ignored them all. I put them down to being on crutches, the takeaway from the evening before and being old! Not wanting to bother anyone I thought it would pass.
Finally, I went to see my GP three days later. I only went because of rotten indigestion. As a routine, my doctor listened to my heart, then did an ECG and said I was actually having a Myocardial Infarction (MI) or commonly known as a heart attack!
Women are notoriously bad at being aware that they are having a heart attack. We have a tendency to just tough it out. In my case, you could have knocked me down with a feather. I was healthy and ate a great diet; I was fit and active, I wasn’t diabetic, I didn’t have high cholesterol and I even have naturally low blood pressure.
It was the last thing I expected to be happening to me. I would have been less surprised if I had experienced pain down the left arm and the crushing pain on the left side of my chest. But nope nothing like that, nothing that even made me slightly suspect. I didn’t know that heart attack symptoms can be different for everyone, especially for women.
Coupled with that, I didn’t want to go to the hospital as it would put people out, ruined the weekend, and didn’t want to be embarrassed by wasting the doctor’s time.
Knowledge is king and speed is of the essence as leaving it will make the situation worse. Not only is there the risk of death but long term damage to the heart muscle that can be avoided.
If any of the possible heart attack symptoms occur, and especially if they feel unusual for you, act quickly:
Severe heartburn, nausea or lack of appetite: It’s hard to tell the difference between heartburn and heart attack as I found out. Like me, if you have had a takeaway or you’ve just eaten a big meal and feel a burning sensation in your chest. It’s heartburn, yes? Possibly, but there’s a chance the chest pain is caused by reduced blood flow to your heart (angina) or an actual heart attack.
Diarrhoea: Why would you think this is connected? It can be one of the first symptoms caused by the release of adrenalin. The physical stress of a heart attack gets the body ready to react by accessing the “fight or flight” system. It causes a rush of adrenaline that redistributes both water and blood flow, hence the upset stomach.
Anxiety: a heart attack can cause intense anxiety. Survivors often speak of having experienced an unusual “sense of impending doom” leading up their cardiac event. I was scared to cause a fuss or be a trouble to anyone. It’s hard to tell the difference between panic or anxiety and real cardiac symptoms.
Chest discomfort: Pain in the chest is the classic symptom of the Hollywood heart attack, but not all heart attacks cause chest pain. In a study overall, 42% of men with a heart attack reported chest pain, compared with 30.7% of women. Further calculations revealed that the younger a woman was, the higher the chance she would not experience chest pain.
I have used the word discomfort as I didn’t specifically have pain; I also note in hindsight that taking painkillers didn’t alleviate the discomfort so I suggest that maybe another clue. Women commonly describe their chest symptoms as tightness, fullness, burning, heaviness or pressure – NOT pain.
Pain in other parts of the body: pain or discomfort can begin in the chest and spread to shoulders, arms, elbows, upper back, neck, jaw, throat or abdomen. Some women experience no chest pain and other symptoms might come and go.
Men sometimes feel pain down their left arm, but women are more likely to feel this in either arm or both, or in the back between the shoulder blades. For me it was both arms, I thought the pain was because I was using on crutches, my neck and shoulders ached too.
Dizziness: heart attacks can cause light-headedness or even loss of consciousness.
Fatigue: especially among women, unusual crushing fatigue can occur during a heart attack. It can also occur in the days and weeks leading up to one. For me, I remember remarking to colleagues about feeling so tired and not knowing quite why perhaps I was coming down with something.
Weakness: again in the days leading up to my heart attack as well as during it I felt weak almost as if I was coming down with flu. For some people, it is experienced as a severe, unexplained weakness.
Insomnia: I’m not sure quite why but I couldn’t sleep at all. For three nights straight I was awake although I’m sure I must have dozed off from time to time. I believe this is again due to the elevated heart rate, blood pressure, decrease in oxygen levels and adrenaline.
Rapid or irregular pulse: there’s usually nothing to worry about if you have an occasional skipped heartbeat, but a rapid or irregular pulse, when coupled with other symptoms, can be evidence of a cardiac event.
Shortness of breath: I felt breathless when I had a conversation; it wasn’t like not being able to breathe just like I couldn’t catch my breath. Feeling “like you’ve just run a marathon when you haven’t even moved”, might be a significant symptom.
Sweating: breaking out in a nervous cold sweat is a common sign of heart attack. Sometimes it can feel a bit like a hot flush, just like going through menopause.
The British Heart Foundation says that 69% of women would need to experience three or more heart attack symptoms before they’d think about getting medical help.
We often don’t want to admit that we’re old enough, live a lifestyle with risk factors or sick enough to have heart trouble. Putting off treatment for other medical issues might not be such a bad thing, but a problem with your heart can mean sudden death. Be aware of the signs. It’s better to go to A&E and get yourself checked than to be dead.
Help build awareness, share my blog on your social media and tell everyone you love and care about. The advice from the medical profession is – if in doubt check it out as soon as possible. If it turns out to be heartburn or a strained muscle, they won’t mind.